Spaced out: Clearing astronauts' mental fog

2019-03-01 03:07:10

By Anil Ananthaswamy JUNE 1997. About 350 kilometres above Earth, the Russian Progress resupply vehicle begins closing in on the Mir space station. But Mir’s range-finding radar begins malfunctioning. With only the on-board camera, handheld range finders and their eyes, Mir’s cosmonauts struggle to see the approaching vehicle. To get a better view, they begin moving between the station’s modules. Yet they start to feel disoriented. When the cosmonauts finally spot Progress, it is too close and moving too fast. The supply vehicle smashes into Mir, rips apart a solar panel, punches a hole in one of the modules and decompresses the station. What happened? According to Charles Oman at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Man Vehicle Laboratory, this may have been a classic case of the mental befuddlement caused by space travel. Symptoms include mental dullness, strange visual illusions, spatial disorientation, and even an apparent dissociation between the body and the brain’s sense of self. Thankfully, no one was killed in the Mir crash, but these problems can only become more dangerous as we prepare for ever-longer spaceflights. “It was a serious incident,” says Oman. “It threatened the lives of the crew members on board and the integrity of the space station.” Reports of “space stupids” or “space fog”, as the feeling of confusion is sometimes known, have been documented for at least two decades. “These are highly trained, highly motivated professionals, so any time they suggest that there might be a change in their cognition, you have to take them seriously,” says David Dinges,